September always feels like a new start, and as I’m gearing up to a pamphlet launch in early 2018 I’m trying to get some readings set up. I’ve queried some poet friends, sent a few polite emails and things are taking shape.
Not everyone responds to query emails, which is a shame, but I suppose they get a lot of requests to read and they may not know me from Adam. At the Needlewriters in Lewes our waiting list for potential readers is about three years long, so I’m not fazed when people offer me something in 2019!
Anyway, I’ve had a bit of a readings hiatus, so I’m thinking again about reading technique, memorising, putting a set together and so on. (Warning: angst alert!)
I’ve never been on a ‘how to read poetry to an audience’ course but such a course is tempting. I hear great things about Live Canon in this respect, indeed I’ve seen (and been very impressed by) their alumni. But of course, reading one’s poetry presents different challenges to different people.
A poetry reading – how I try not to cock it up
I tend not to get overly nervous, in fact I enjoy readings, but only if I’m well prepared, and if I haven’t done enough prep then the cracks quickly appear. They may not always show to the audience (fifteen years of marketing presentations taught me a lot) but I feel them, and the whole thing starts to be not fun. If I’ve decided to memorise something, I then see it as a great failure if I dry up. Luckily, unlike actors, ‘page’ poets have the choice of reading from memory or not. So I must learn to only read off the book if I know I’ve practised enough.
Also, I know that my voice can be a weakness – I have an accent that occasionally wavers inexplicably, especially if I think about it as I’m speaking. I put it down to some deep-seated social anxiety, but I’m also what linguists call an accommodator, which means you have a tendency to unconsciously mirror other people’s accents. Another problem is that when ‘projecting’ to an audience I can get lazy and stop using my diaphragm to breathe, so my throat tightens up, the sound is forced and afterwards I feel I’ve strained it. Working on singing technique has helped with this a lot. If I were a school teacher it probably wouldn’t be an issue, as teachers learn quite early on how to not misuse their voices.
Yet more angst about it
Then there’s the worry of appearing over-confident, or even over-casual about it all. I love going to readings where the poet is confident enough in themselves to let the poetry do the talking, where there’s no anxiety being communicated from reader to audience (even if it is there), where they are well prepared, know what they’re going to read next, know when to finish. But there’s a fine line between this and appearing overly slick, or possibly even enjoying the sound of one’s own voice. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t worry about this – everyone’s threshold for ‘fakeness’ is different, and you can’t please everyone…in fact, just writing a blog is, for many people, a de facto example of enjoying the sound of one’s own voice, so I’d better shut up now.
If you’re interested in this topic (or if I’ve made you more anxious than you were already), poet and voice and voice specialist Marek Urbanowicz produced this PDF tipsheet for Agenda – How to Improve Reading Your Poetry.
Live Canon as I mentioned do run occasional courses in performing poetry, and also offer coaching in ‘voice, breath, preparing poems for performance, combatting nerves, microphone technique’ – oh NO, microphone technique, I don’t even want to go there!
Tell me about it
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on poetry readings – either as the poet reading (how do you prepare? any tips?) or as the long-suffering audience member (what can poets do to make it work for you?)